An extract from “NISBET AND NELSON’S EYE”
Mr Midshipman Nisbet hated the sea, but he hated his Captain more. His Captain was also his stepfather, and was keeping a woman in his cabin. Enraged at this betrayal of his mother, and at the insult to himself, Nisbet chose to run. The blue Mediterranean shone seductively, a French coaster was alongside selling fresh provisions, so he slid down the Agamemnon’s side, pushed a coin at the astonished boatman and covered his head with a blanket that stank of fish. His Captain’s name was Horatio Nelson.
‘Allons, monsieur,’ he whispered from under the blanket, for they were still fending off from the Agamemnon’s stern. ‘Let us go, please.’
‘Oui. Bien sur,’ came the answer, but then Nisbet could have sworn that another body thumped down into the boat – greeted by urgent whispers.
Then they were away. For a while Nisbet still crouched under the blanket, the hot tears flowing. But then he dared to glance out. It was a magnificent sight. Dwindling behind them was Nelson’s Agamemnon and the rest of the British fleet, a dozen great ships wonderfully clear in the hot August sun, the Mediterrean breaking white at their bows and throwing tinsel glitters along their sides. The fleet was blockading Toulon, the largest French port on the Mediterranean, and ahead Nisbet could see the great bay that hid a score of the enemy’s most potent warships.
He hadn’t asked their destination, but certainly they were heading shoreward, slanting over the sunlit sea to a point somewhere east of the city. Nisbet was crouched in the stern of the boat, almost under the feet of the helmsman who now noticed his attention and said, ‘Non, mon enfant,’ and pulled the blanket back over his head. Crouched in the dark, the hot sun beating on his back, Nisbet tried to recall what his brief glimpse had revealed: above them the dirty brown sail, ahead the backs of half a dozen figures staring at the shore as it drew rapidly near, but no reason for the helmsman’s concern.
‘Attends,’ said the helmsman and rested his foot on Nisbet’s back. ‘Wait. One moment, eh.’
Now they had landed. That much he could hear and feel. They had run up a gravel beach, the boat jolting as at least some of its people stepped ashore. Was one of them hurrying away up the gravel? And why the foot on his back?
He jumped up and threw the blanket aside. At once he was embraced by laughing men. The helmsman and a couple of others slapped his back, ruffled his hair, and declared that he was a fine boy – and look, here was a tavern where he might be drunk for the first time. And if not wine then perhaps warm milk and a sugar lump and a big breasted woman to put him to bed, for surely it was time for his nap.
But in those days Nisbet was small and quick. In an instant he had ducked under their arms and his short legs were hurrying him up the beach. He looked back. The men were spreading their arms and laughing. ‘Non, mon enfant,’ they called, and gestured him back.
He stopped to catch his breath. Ahead was a stone house. A dusty track vanished around a grove of trees. He couldn’t see the British fleet and this frightened him. He was alone among the enemy.
He walked up the beach to the track. Again he looked back, but again the men laughed and showed no sign of pursuit. Surely this was strange. Why were they so unconcerned? Shouldn’t they kill him?
Perhaps they thought he was French, since he spoke their language. And perhaps they didn’t know he was in the Royal Navy. After all, he had changed into his off duty clothes for the fight in the Midshipman’s cockpit. ‘Why, Nisbet,’ Weatherhead had said, ‘I didn’t know your mother was an Italian whore.’ So they had fought, bare-knuckle across a sea chest and Weatherhead had won, because at sixteen he was three years older than Nisbet. And rage and shame had driven Nisbet off the ship.
How strange to be ashore. After weeks on the crowded ship, hundreds of men jostling among a clamor of wind and wave, stressed wood and shouted orders, it was strange indeed to walk this quiet track with the smell of hot dust and the rattle or hiss of some kind of insects in the bushes. His head down, solemn, he plodded up the track among scented herbs.
He came to the clump of trees and turned the sharp bend. Ahead a slim figure was striding.
It was Nelson’s whore.
Nisbet had grown up knowing his stepfather as a country gentleman in straitened circumstances. Yet even as a half-pay Captain, Nelson shone with glory in their little Norfolk neighbourhood. He might be inclined to count pennies, wear out his clothes, and hunt for the pot, but he had the aura of all sea officers. And Nisbet was besotted. He had handled Nelson’s sword when it was still taller than he, had worn Nelson’s dress coat, though it trailed on the floor, and had pushed sticks around the hearth rug squeaking, ‘Fire as she bears.’ And as he grew older he ranged widely, but generally towards the sea. But then France was convulsed by revolution. After five years on the beach, Nelson had command of the Agamemnon, 74, and would take his 12-year-old stepson with him.
Now, as he stalked this woman along the hot and dusty track, Nisbet thought of hunting. He had gone out often enough with Nelson, usually with local Norfolk menfolk. Nelson was a pitiful shot and an abstracted huntsman, and Nisbet therefore felt himself cunning and capable as he tracked this woman, the sun beating on his back, but occasional patches of woodland to shade them, the way leading towards Toulon. Pent between the sea to his left and the parched hills to his right the road gave her little room to evade him.
‘She’s a French spy,’ he whispered with fierce joy – for how else to explain her confident stride, as if she had nothing to fear among these hills which belonged to the republicans. ‘She will tell them about Nelson and our ships and our plans.’ He dreamed of standing before Admiral Hood, the woman spitting and defiant as he explained her treachery. He would say nothing of Nelson’s folly and stupidity (his proper punishment for adultery) – or perhaps he would. ‘How unfortunate,’ he might say, ‘that this woman was allowed – no, permitted – permitted to penetrate so deeply into the heart of this fleet, thanks to the folly of one man, or to one man’s folly. Or lust. Or the lust of one man.’
So Nisbet muttered as he went, kicking the stones, distracted by warm thoughts of revenge. He was passing a wine shop, idly staring at a peasant dozing under his woollen cap, his clogs off and flies circling his oat cake – when he saw that the woman had vanished. No sign of her, not on the track, not on the open ground around them.
He dashed inside – one table, two fat old women turning their bleary gaze. He ran into the yard behind – empty. He was about to run back to the track when he heard, ‘Bonjour, Josiah.’ An amused voice from the shadows under a trellised vine. ‘Tu m’aime, Josiah?’
She stepped out now, very slim and amused.
He dare not abuse her in English, but he recalled his boyhood on Nevis and a row between his mother’s house servants, refugees from St Kitts. ‘Putain,’ he cried, ‘Vache.’
‘Ah, so you do not love me. How sad. Then why do you follow me?’
Nisbet said, ‘Pourquoi tu parles francais?’ He snatched at her hat – a republican bonnet with a cockade. ‘I knew it. Not Italian, you liar. A goddam French spy.’
‘Do you like my hat? So pretty I believe. And the soldiers are so happy to see me – because I also am pretty, Josiah, as you see.’
‘Soldiers? You mean French soldiers. Why are you here? What are you doing?’
‘Some call us vivandières, but I like cantinières, because look’ – and she slapped the tin barrel on a leather strap slung at her hip. ‘It is my beloved tonnelet. My tonnelet, which I painted myself, and full of brandy so no wonder the soldiers like me – also for the reason I have said.’
‘Captain Nelson is married.’
‘But of course.’
‘Then I was right. A putain.’
‘No, little boy,’ she said, her arrogance punctured at last. ‘Poisonous little boy. Angry virgin. A virgin who is frightened of a woman.’
‘You are a damn spy and will hang.’
‘Dear Josiah, I am sorry you are jealous of your stepfather.’
‘Soon he will not be my stepfather.’
‘You wish to do the same thing with me. Because I am pretty.’
‘You want to do what you think he has done.’
‘Think? I know what he has done.’ Tears filled his eyes as he said, ‘I will tell my mother!’
‘Do not do that,’ she said, suddenly serious.
‘I’ll tell her,’ he said, dashing away the angry tears. ‘Then there’ll be no more stepfather.’
‘Listen to me, Josiah. Do you know why Nelson and the rest are here?’
‘To kill Frenchmen.’
‘Well, perhaps. But only certain Frenchmen. Some Frenchmen are friends of King George, of course. Do you not see how Nelson is quiet and patient and does not fire his guns. Why is that?’
‘It is because Toulon might become a friend of England. Toulon and all her fine ships.’
They were climbing now, Nisbet hot and breathless, a stocky boy, dark and scowling. Ahead the girl clumped along in her clogs, the red revolutionary cap draped across her shoulder, the tin barrel at her hip, its cup swinging. She was lying, of course. But what lies exactly? He forced his mind to the main issues: that Nelson was betraying his mother with this girl, and she was some kind of spy.
‘I do not sleep with Nelson, of course,’ she said suddenly.
He didn’t answer because she was so cunning. But he was angry because of all these lies. Everyone was lying to him and laughing as they lied.
‘Now, Josiah. Look.’
She had stopped on the brow of a hill, one of the arc of hills that surrounded Toulon and stretched away into a grey-blue haze. Below, the red roofs of the town crowded around the port, but his eyes at once fell on the port itself, where a score of beautiful warships rode at their moorings. ‘This is the prize, Josiah,’ she said. ‘All of the French Mediterranean fleet. Sixteen ships of the line in the outer road and five in the harbour. And Toulon is France’s greatest naval port on the Mediterranean. A very great prize for King George and a terrible blow against the revolution. So what does a little fucking matter?’
He was astonished again. He had not known that a lady could say such a word. How had she learned it? But the girl had already turned away, her long stride taking her up the brow of the hill. He looked beyond the harbour, beyond the outer road where the British fleet rode in the haze. One of those blurred ships would be the Agamemnon. He called after the girl: ‘Should I go back?’
‘No, no. Pas de tout. If you can be civil then certainly you must come. I go to meet some old friends. You will like them, they will like you. But tell me Josiah: why do you speak such excellent French? Such a strange accent, but not at all English. Like a peasant from the Alps, perhaps, in some strange forgotten valley. Ah, citoyens! Voulez-vous quelque chose? J’ai beaucoup de jolis choses.’
Ahead were a dozen men. They rested in a basin of ground, but their muskets were close at hand. They wore scraps of uniform. If the girl was a spy she would betray him. But instead she gave him a great innocent smile and said quietly, ‘Tell the truth, except that you sailed here on a trader and not a ship of our friend George.’
He listened absent-mindedly while the girl gave out nips of brandy from the tin barrel at her hip, accepting the odd coin, and chattered and said that she had been to Toulon to buy brandy and could not give them too much. At one point their sergeant, very red and confused because he had been sleeping in the sun, bestirred himself and demanded her commission as a cantinière.
‘Who has a commission now?’ she cried. ‘I pray, let the republic enforce the commission, for there are too many liars and thieves and putains who wear the uniform of the cantinière and bring disgrace on us all.’
‘Where do you go?’
‘To join my comrades. Those fine fellows of the 4th Battalion of volunteers under the brave Suchet, bless him.’
Her smile continued wide and bold, and the soldiers let them go with many a lingering look. She said, ‘Josiah, now you are properly among the enemy. Thank god they were only volunteers, fools from the farmyard. Yet you see I did not denounce you. So will you trust me?’
‘You are very welcome,’ she said, with a sweet smile. ‘You are a brave boy, after all. But take care. You have no uniform, no papers, no purpose but to be shot. Stay close to me because now you have become the spy.’
They breasted yet another hill and saw a village straggling down to the valley below. The girl said. ‘Josiah, here you will meet a family who are my friends. And I must tell you some things. First you may call me Adele, because we must pretend that you love me.’
‘Or perhaps that you are my servant. My servant who loves me.’
‘Listen. Now I am sincere. You are only my friend then, though of course you would like to be more. And we met just now in Toulon because you are a sailor from a merchant ship and you are tired of the sea because you hate your captain who is also your stepfather. Do not frown, my pretty slave. And you have followed me because you love me. And I have permitted this because it amuses me and you are pretty and you have carried my bag on this hot day in these steep hills. Here, take it. That is the first thing. And the second is that my friends are Corsican. And the third thing is that I am Corsican – and also French, Italian and pretty. And also that my friends are recently arrived here from the island – some of them are republicans, some royalists, some hate the French, some love the French and some want to be French. This means they are Corsican! So be careful. Do not talk about France or the republic or the King or Captain Nelson. And do not frown, mon petit Josiah.’
They had followed a dirt road that ran out of the town and along a hillside, Nisbet staring out over Toulon in the blue distance, the sea glittering in the haze beyond. Nisbet thought, ‘I will be a spy, just as the French imagine. I will watch the soldiers and I will report to Admiral Hood.’ He imagined a conversation with Hood. He pictured himself making his report, spreading a map he had made, and telling how the French soldiers had chased him, and here was a bullet hole in his coat.
At a modest villa Adele halted and knocked on a door. A distracted servant answered, but a few words from Adele brought shrieks from within. In a moment she was overwhelmed with embraces, cries of delight, while a barking puppy dancing around the mill of women. ‘Friends, friends,’ she cried amid their shrieks, ‘here is mon petite ami, Josiah. A name from the Bible of course, and certainly he is virtuous and kind and my faithful servant.’
Then they had passed through the house and into the garden, where a picnic was underway. Wine, bread, cheese were spread on a sheet on the grass, while Adele’s friends regretted they had nothing better – but they had only just moved here, they said, everyone chattering together, and they had lost everything. And here the mother lamented and dabbed her eyes. There was Loius, Jerome, Marianna, Paoletta, Annonciata – and perhaps more, because Nisbet was bewildered. They asked how Adele had escaped, and she had a convincing tale: a night flight, a horse that went lame, and how a kiss and a promise had bought her passage on a last boat from Bastia. There was no mention of Nelson.
Nisbet watched Adele as the warm sun beat down: laughing and lively, so bold and brave. And pretty, certainly pretty with her lively eye and careless chatter. If she was not his stepfather’s mistress then everything was changed. His heart warmed to Nelson, and to this pretty girl. Perhaps, as she claimed, she was a brave British spy come to the heart of the enemy. The soldiers had been frightening, but Adele had saved him.
Now the family was explaining their own flight from Corsica. Sometimes they remembered their guest and spoke French, but generally it was some Italian dialect that he could penetrate only when it resembled French. And Napoleone had saved them! His ship was passing a headland and by some miracle they were there, and so they had all come together to Toulon, which seemed as mad as Corsica – republicans fighting royalists and each other, so that he had brought them to this house in quiet little La Valette.
Nisbet began to nod. The day was hot, he had walked far and the wine was strong. His last thought was, ‘Who is Napoleone?’
He woke to loud acclamations. A young man had arrived. astride a horse that he had ridden boldly into the garden. A linen shirt but some kind of military trousers, and military baggage on his horse. He leapt down and laughed as all shrieked and ran to him – a lovely surprise, do wear your hat, how thin you are. Pale and thin with lank black hair – a poet soldier, and Nisbet at once resented him.
And then the young man saw Adele. There was a momentary silence, secret smirks from his sisters, and then they bowed and curtsied, and he kissed her hand. They exchanged glances with a particularly direct look, the look of those who shared memories, and Nisbet’s heart sank. But then more shrieks and acclamations and the young man – with a wave and a nod to Nisbet – was hurried inside and suddenly Nisbet was alone.
He wandered across the garden, brooding on the young soldier – a French popinjay, half starved like Frenchmen in the prints at home. He thought about slipping away. He might take a route through the hills, marking enemy forts on a map which he could present to Admiral Hood himself. He imagined the Admiral shaking his hand and saying –
‘Josiah, do not sulk,’ said Adele. ‘Come inside. We can sit in the cool. And there is more wine and cheese.’
‘But also that scrawny fellow.’
‘Who? Napoleone? He is a decent sort, like the rest of the family Buonaparte, who I have known all my life.’
‘Arrogant. And yellow as a vampire.’
She took his arm and spoke softly. ‘It is interesting that you dislike him, Josiah. And remember that he is a soldier of the republic, and therefore your enemy. More than that, he is Corsican but wishes Corsica to be French. You English need a port in the Mediterranean. Perhaps you can have Toulon, but perhaps you cannot. Corsica is of the first importance.’
‘Yes,’ he said, unconvinced. ‘I understand.’
‘Get ready, Josiah. We will leave soon. Buonaparte rides back to his unit and I will walk with him a little way. I have decided that you must come.’
They left as the afternoon light thickened, Buonaparte leading his horse and Adele and Nisbet taking turns in the saddle. Buonaparte, it emerged, was a Captain in an artillery regiment. He commanded a coastal battery to the east, near Nice, but was travelling to Avignon to collect a shipment of gunpowder, his troop gone ahead while he visited his family here at La Valette. But it seemed that Buonaparte was no longer Bounaparte: instead of this very Italian – or Corsican – name, he was now to be addressed as Napoleon Bonaparte, a name that seemed to Nisbet far less appealing without its flowery vowels, far more aggressive and French, like hair cropped à la Titus. And this change was important. The young soldier, in fact, was impressing it very firmly on Adele – who seemed reluctant, even angry.
Then Nisbet was taking his turn in the saddle, and Adele and the young soldier were whispering again. Again it was in Corsican, but there was no doubt of its import – not with the smiles and bumped shoulders and his arm around her waist, these contacts growing more strong as the light vanished. ‘Josiah,’ Adele said, ‘we two have an important matter to discuss. You will stay here a little while, yes?’
He was too disappointed to speak, until he saw they were taking the horse. ‘Mais oui, Josiah,’ said Adele. ‘The Captain cannot leave his valuable mount. You are a friend, of course, but a very new friend.’ But then she put a hand on his shoulder and leaned to his ear and whispered, ‘Remember what I said.’
So Nisbet stood and waited in the dark. Then he sat on a rock. He began to feel stupid. And he was cold. He had left theAgamemnon in his shirt sleeves and now he shivered. Why had they not left him a blanket? Then he thought how they might use a blanket. They would be lying on it now, and laughing at him, and no doubt consulting Adele’s barrel of brandy slung on the horse’s saddle.
Or perhaps they had ridden away. Why hadn’t he thought of this? He was shivering here like a fool, sitting in the dark and thinking they would soon return. But instead they had no doubt walked out of earshot and then simply ridden into the night – and Adele the French spy would soon be sitting in some enemy camp and laughing at him.
He walked after them.
His boots crunched on the stony track, seeming louder because of the cold, so he moved to the tough grass along its sides. The track was a trench of darkness, with bright stars above and a black plain far below with the occasional dots of light from peasant houses.
He heard something ahead. He squinted into the dark. Perhaps it was the clink of a horse’s bridle – a horse waiting quietly in the dark while its owner lay on a blanket. Yes. Now he could see it. And he could see a crouched figure beside it. A single figure, who knelt over some small object on the ground. He crept closer. It was Adele, and she had lifted the end off her tin barrel. She was drawing something black from inside.
‘A pistol!’ said Nisbet.
Several things happened quickly. First Adele whispered, ‘Silence.’
Then, a little down the slope, Bonaparte stood up from the dark. ‘A pistol?’ he said. ‘Why?’
And then Adele fired the pistol at Bonaparte, leapt on to the horse and rode away into the dark, crying, ‘Josiah! Imbécile!’